An Engineers Apprentice

By Claire Mellett and Jenny Gales (British Geological Survey)

A typical day for us usually involves sitting behind a desk staring at a computer in the basement of the BGS Edinburgh office. As marine geologists we are tasked with mapping the seabed and sub-seabed for government and commercial interests. Fundamental to this is an understanding of how geological processes such as ice, rivers, wind, waves and tides have shaped the seabed over long periods of time. Our field area is inaccessible to us as it is drowned beneath sometimes thousands of metres of water and we rely on remote sensing data such as bathymetry and seismic to image the seafloor and make our interpretations. Once we have “guestimated” geological conditions we need to prove them with physical samples and this is where the BGS Marine Operations team comes in.

When carrying out our own research we focus on finding the most suitable site that will provide an answer to whatever question we are asking and we don’t spend too much time thinking about how the sample is recovered. Luckily we have a BGS Marine Operations team comprising electrical, mechanical and design engineers that can build and adapt equipment to meet our expectations. However, ignorance isn’t always bliss and by understanding how different rigs work and the logistics involved in transporting, fitting and fixing equipment on different vessels all around the world, we will have knowledge of how our data was collected and the limitations of its use. Claire: “I thought I would be fairly useless as a member of the operations team given that I am a typical “pen pusher” but I went in with an open mind willing to try anything. As the weeks have gone by I find it easier to lift the barrels meaning I must be getting stronger. I also seem to have started a scrap metal collection as I keep finding bolts and washers in all my pockets. This apparently proves your worth an engineer (according to Garry, one of the BGS engineers)”.

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After a while we decided to formalise our training so made ourselves engineer’s apprentices. As part of the apprenticeship we came up with list of skills that needed to be developed. These include tasks like winch operation (which is the most stressful part of the apprenticeship), vibrocore assembly, vessel awareness (Claire: “I can now distinguish the bulkhead from the deckhead”), health and safety and vibrocore driving. This last skill is obviously very important as when carrying out this task you get the comfiest seat in the container right next to the heater (which also reclines for when you’re on night shift). Additional skills every seafaring apprentice must have include coffee and tea making (including biscuit acquisition) to keep the team going on twelve hour shifts, rope skills (Jenny: “we can now both tie a rolling hitch with two half hitches to get the core liner out of the barrel”) and radio etiquette which varies greatly depending on accents. The final part of the training is tool recognition. We are getting good at this although there appears to be a nomenclature issue depending what tradesman you get e.g. a “toffee hammer” is apparently the same as a “quarter pound ball pein hammer”.

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We do have it easy in comparison to the rest of the BGS engineering team as when things break down, which is likely to happen when you’re at sea for a long time, they surprise us by just fixing things. As engineers, this is their job, but it still gets us each time they make something work. For example, we are running low on core catchers as the geology keeps destroying them so we decided to just make some. A bit of improvisation and some welding and we have a new supply of core catchers, voilà!

The work day for an engineer’s apprentice is so refreshing yet tiring. We are outside all day which is delightful when the sun (or moon) is reflecting off a reasonable calm sea with big white fluffy clouds on the horizon. Even when the rain is horizontal and the waves are crashing over the deck, we still look forward to getting out to work. When compared to the often solitary life of a scientist where you exist in your ideas, it is a welcome change to be working outside as part of a team of engineers and ship’s crew physically collecting the scientific data you spend most our time working on. Claire: “I must add here that the ship’s crew on board are all extremely patient with helping us in our training (especially when it comes to winch operation!)”.

We keep being asked if we prefer being a scientist or part of the operations team on a research cruise and it’s a difficult question to answer. Claire: “It is a bit of a holiday for me being an engineer’s apprentice as it is not my profession, therefore all the pressure is on our trainers (Iain and Mike’s) shoulders. I do appear to spend a large part of the day laughing (usually at myself) which is a sign I am enjoying the work. However, if I had a 90 m research vessel at my disposal, as a scientist, I can only imagine the fun I would have!”.

(Selected photography by Alex Ingle)

1 thought on “An Engineers Apprentice

  1. Dayton

    Live from the basement…good luck with finishing up and get your fill of fresh air…we’ll welcome you back with open arms, and damp, slightly moldy air.


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